Well it’s complicated to explain what to think about when buying a car. First of all it’s the second largest investment that anyone is going to make and it is not like a phone. It is an asset that will last years. But, advice has never been more important because so many things are changing in the automotive business. So here are some notes and thoughts about thinking about electric vehicles.
TL;dr Recommendations by category
There are basically a few categories of cars available now. The market leader is of course Tesla and that is with good reason. They are just more available and they are cheaper for what you get. I haven’t driven some of these, but have test driven some and read a bunch about it:
- Cheap and basic around the town transportation
- The good car for people on a budget
- The all around car where safety is first
- The big family car that carries everything, everywhere
- The luxury car that takes you to the golf course
- But I’m a traditionalist at heart
Cheap and Basic: A used Nissan Leaf
A good local car that isn’t going far means that you are trying to get something that is the absolute rock bottom price. That pretty quickly is going to lead you to a used car because the depreciation is massive for many cars. The Nissan Leaf is actually a pretty good choice as long as you avoid the latest models that have unconditioned batteries.
What is happening is that the best batteries are temperature conditioned, if they are not, then you can lost 30% of your range. Still this is a car you can get for $15K, so really think about it, it’s a good way to be economical and save the planet. Yes, it has 100 miles or so of usable range, but that is plenty for getting around town.
Good Car for People on a Budget: Leased Tesla Model 3 SR+
Ok this is a contrarian recommendation, but it makes some sense. If you are just starting out in life (or don’t have a $300K Software engineer job), getting together even the downpayment on a car, let alone qualifying for a car loan doesn’t make sense.
Right now the best deal in town is the Tesla Model 3 SR+. This car is $38K, but more importantly you can get it for $400/month as a lease. It has a 240 mile range which is plenty for going around the town and that is far enough that with the Supercharger network you can go practically anywhere in the country.
That’s an incredibly affordable deal when you consider there are essentially no maintenance costs and fuel is very, very cheap.
Most people when they are buying cars don’t look at total cost of ownership. But when you realize that in Seattle for instance, 1KwH costs $0.0775, so that is $2.50 for a gallon of fast equivalent. This car gets 125Mpg equivalent, so you are in effect reducing your fuel costs by 5x. And there are zero maintenance costs. And the car is designed to last 500K miles in the motors.
So what do you get for this, you get a car that seats five people and where the trunk is big enough to throw in two sets of golf clubs. Or drop the rear seats and you can stick your bike in there. Plus you still have room in the Front Trunk (frunk) to put all your groceries. And for those of you who want a quiet sedan that can blow away any $150K supercar, upgrade to the Model 3 Performance. That car gives up 10% in range, but a 0-60mph time of 3.2 seconds, well you just have to experience it yourself.
Finally, see the section about Tesla Myths and Facts, but while there have been initial build and availability problems, there is no problem.
The all around car for the four person family: Tesla Model 3 LR
Ok this car is a bit more at $45K, but in many ways it’s the best value around. You get a car with 330 mile range. To scale that, you would have to basically go five hours before you even need to think about recharging. That’s basically from San Francisco to Los Angeles. And with the latest V3 charging coming on line, going two hours and then stopping for 7 minutes to recharge is right on the horizon. Even now a long distance trip basically features a 15 minute stop every two hours, so a bit of a pain, but not awful.
It’s also super beautiful and very fast. The main thing though is that the car is upgradeable. This is a new concept in cars, but with software downloads and a single architecture for everything, Tesla just keeps slamming new features into these cars even after market.
In just the last year, they’ve add a burglar alarm, a dash cam, more autonomous features. And with this model, you get AutoPilot included, so you get the active safety features that make a difference. In many ways, Autopilot is such a horrible term, it sounds like you give control of the car to the computer. When we are driving ours, I think of it as something that is just making sure that I don’t mess up. It is not about hands free driving, but making sure that I don’t cut someone off or worse yet if someone is going to cut me off it will do something about it.
At this level, you can think of this car as a $45K hardware investment that can last 10 years and then you have some software decisions to make. They have a $6K upgrade to Full Self Driving (another term that I think is pretty scary, if you called it Advanced Active Safety, it would be more descriptive). But who doesn’t want a car that will notice when there is a red light, when you don’t, and do something about it.
It is really important that the drive computer in these cars is both modern and also replaceable in 20 minutes. That means that the chassis which is designed with a 500K motor life, a 250K battery pack life could really last that long.
The go anywhere do anything SUV: Tesla Model X LR
If you just want to make sure that you can go anywhere and do anything, it is really hard to beat the 6 or 7 seat Tesla Model X. Yes the doors are hard to get used to, but this thing really is the ultimate long distance road trip machine. A combination of the panoramic windshield and the new Raven improvements to the drivetrain and suspension have made it great. The automatic doors and the biodefense air system are just icing on the cake with this car.
The range improvements to 330 miles are a big deal as well and the largest form factor really makes a difference. Yes, you can sleep in the back and when the doors in the back are open, it’s the most awesome car for kids and grandparents to get in.
Finally, the prices have been crashing, in the last two years, the cost of a Model X has gone from $114K to $80K and they have improved the cars dramatically. So it is not for everyone, but it is much more affordable than ever.
The go to the golf course in luxury: Tesla Model S LR
This is the range monster of the bunch at 370 miles. At this level, you could cruise for days in the ultimate luxury and quiet. The body itself is a classic. You won’t find a better proportioned car that will carry five people in luxury. The trunk goes on forever and that’s a good thing. And at the newly reduced prices, luxury has gotten 30% cheaper 🙂
But I’m a traditionalist: Jaguar iPace, Audi e-Tron and Porsche Taycan
The Teslas are radically different, they substitute touchscreen for buttons. They don’t have miles of leather and stitching. In general, they aren’t, I’m sitting in my living room.
The good news is that the many people with brand loyalty, there are traditional car folks coming out with the first line of luxury cars that will feed this need. You will have to pay from $80-150K to get them.
There are some drawbacks. You will have to pay a lot more for it. These cars are more expensive by 30% and typically have much less range. And in the US, they lack a charging network right now, so they are really second cars. If you want to go long distance, you are going to have to fall back to a gas car.
Finally and this is perhaps the biggest one, these cars are not future proofed. They don’t have a single unified compute architecture, you can just pour software in and add self-driving features. But they are electric and they are traditional.
Here’s a run down of what is here and coming:
Jaguar I-Pace. This is much smaller than a Model X, although they try to compare it. The main thing there is the luxury appointments. It’s also available now. It is a 200 mile car without a real charging network in the US, so the tradeoff has been in electric efficiency. Again, this doesn’t matter if it is a second car.
Audi e-Tron. This is a 240 mile car and has just come out. it is quiet and not as big as a Model X. But, it is an Audi which is good.
Porsche Taycan. This is a mid-sized sedan about the size of a Model 3. It is expensive like all Porsches at $90K minimum, but a realistic build is more like $120K. But, if you are a Porsche lover that shouldn’t be an problem.
Tesla Haters and Myth Busting
Some have called it the Apple of cars and that is no accident, internally, they have a different approach to car design. The most fundamental of which is that they have a single compute infrastructure that runs everything. It’s a big technical, but all these other cars are really a bag of subsystems that are bought from other vendors. That means, there is no single software base that manages the cameras or which handles the dashboard. It makes it very hard to update the software in place. While that might seem like it doesn’t matter (just like with phones, where 10 years ago, 90% of the value was in the hardware), Tesla is the only manufacturer that is bringing out major annual updates and weekly fixes. This means they continue to improve the product and it means they don’t hand off functions to your phone. That’s a big decision, but it does mean there there is no tethering required, they don’t have to support two different control systems (Apple and Google). The car literally works out of the box. And the other big difference is that instead of dozens and dozens of hard buttons, the user interface is in software controllable switches and a touchscreen. While this is an adjustment, it means that you can keep improving the product for years after the initial sale.
Most of this comes first hand from trying to be all electric for the last two years. It hasn’t been easy to live an electric life, but here are some thoughts:
Some myth busting about Tesla
First of all, this field is moving so fast that even things that were true six months ago are not true anymore. Thanks to the falling cost of batteries and the improvements in machine learning infrastructure, it’s gotten a lot harder to make a good guess about where things will fall, but here are the most common myths that I’ve heard and what is actually true on the ground:
- Electric cars costs have fallen 20-30% in the last 2-3 years. While this differs around the world, the big news is how much costs have collapses in the last two years. I never thought this would be possible, but right now a Model X that cost $114K in 2017, costs $85K in 2019, that’s a 25% decrease. And a Model 3 Performance with all the trimmings that cost $78K in the fall of 2018, now costs $64K which is a 20% decline. And all of this in the face of falling US Federal subsidies. These are real dollar costs.
- A base model is pretty cheap with great range with a $400/month lease and 4x lower annual costs. Back in 2017, we were looking at . That is not going to get you very far at maybe 120-150 miles in real range, today, you can a base Model 3 for $39K and it gets 240 miles or real range. More importantly you can get one with a $400/month lease. The thing also get 4x better mileage (125mpg equivalent), is super fast and has essentially no service interval.
- Recharging has gotten easier. In the US, Tesla has made an incredible investment in superchargers, so you can pretty much anywhere in the US or Canada, recharge times are down in the 15 minute range which gives you the two hours you need to get to your next step. The next turn of the crank (moving to higher charging) gets down into the 10 minute range. In Europe, this is true for most cars because they have a single charging standard in the US, the Supercharger network really matters.
- The cars are not compromises. What can I say, these are not cars you particularly have to baby, you can go 0 to 60mph in 3.2 seconds (that’s Porsche speeds) and still get 120mpg and you can stuff five people and two sets of golf clubs and weekend bags in the thing. (I know, we’ve tried).
Unexpected Benefits: Regular updates and active safety
Ok, if you’ve never had a Tesla, then you don’t know what it is like to have a car that improves everyday. There is a certain “kid in the candy store” feel to owning one of these that is hard to describe.